It’s that time of year again, when the points won and lost during matches played earlier in the season start to take on a significance that they didn’t seem to hold in the autumn and winter. What might have happened if we hadn’t dropped those two points in September? How could we have realised that the last minute penalty that we missed in January could have such ramifications, and so soon? Both the solid and dotted lines that carve up league tables start to feel tangible, as the possibility of promotion or relegation start to loom heavily in our minds. Without even realising it, we become mathematical geniuses, poring over every conceivable permutation from remaining matches, knowing that a considerable proportion of our lives over the nine months from the coming August will be determined over the next three or four weeks or so.
To look at a league table at this time of year is to look upon a thing of statistical beauty. So many numbers packed into such a small space. There’s an implicit story to be told behind every league table, and it’s a story that we all, somehow or other, know off by heart. The technicalities of the game may well beyond many of us, but anybody can look at and understand one when we see one. A year’s worth of luck and misfortune, brilliance and ineptitude, all reduced down to a compact easily-digestible table of numbers, a common language that anybody with so much as a passing interest in the game can understand, as if by instinct. With two or three matches of the season left to play, we can see who has triumphed, who has failed, and whose fingernails will be ground away to dust by the next seven, fourteen, twenty-one, or twenty-eight days or so.
Yet for all of these shots of reality, the capacity of the football supporter towards self-delusion remains strong. Where we can convince ourselves that hope might spring eternal, we will. Need to win your last three matches of the season and score thirty goals in the process in order to avoid relegation, even though your team has only managed to score forty in its previous forty-three matches? Admit it, football supporter, you’ve considered it, even if only fleetingly. Hope, it often feels, must spring eternal, even when the odds against us are, in the cold light of day, insurmountably high. It’s tempting to think that this form of self-belief, often in the face of all rational evidence, is part of the human condition. We need that hope if we are not to succumb to the crushing truth of reality.
The institution of play-off matches in the late 1980s only added layer upon layer to that sense that everything worked for over the previous nine months might yet go down to the the wire. In the days of many of our youths, to go into the final few matches of the season in, say, sixth or seventh place in a league table was to know that the season was effectively over. Hope and improbable permutations are are one thing. When the numbers simply don’t add up, however… well… that’s something else altogether. But the simple act of introducing play-off places at the end of the season was, in its own way, act of franchise extension. The drama that comes, sometimes but by no means always, at the very top and bottom of a league table can now stretch down towards the middle of a table. There are many supporters for whom that feeling of having their stomachs tied into a knot is based solely upon the possibility of having those gut-wrenching nerves extended by what may well be just the one more self-contained ninety minutes.
And this is the lie behind the play-offs at the end of each season. Of all of those clusters of four clubs that do sit between the solid lines and the dotted lines of those tables, three-quarters will end up beaten and will remain exactly where they were for the following season. The media, of course, does everything that it can to encourage the belief that this isn’t the case without crossing the line into telling outright lies on the subject, and for obvious reasons. The more of us are invested in the end of the season, the higher their viewing or reading figures will be. But it also suits us. Our interest is piqued for a longer period of time, and we’re given that most precious of currencies to the football support, hope, for a few weeks more than was possible for many prior to the institution of the play-offs. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were complaints from some that the play-offs were unfair in that they allowed teams that had finished in fifth or sixth place in the table to get promoted ahead of teams that had finished above them in the final league table, but complaints of that nature have dissipated over the years. Ultimately, we’re junkies, you and I, and when it gets to the end of the season we need that extra hit, by any means necessary.
When it comes, however, it’s over as quickly as it arrived. Over the course of one two-legged tie (and frequently one, in non-league circles,) two of the four that have scrapped all season are cast asunder, and a matter of just a few days later that last remaining two clubs is whittled down to one winner. After all those long months, it can be over in the blink of an eye. We may have recalibrated our expectations in comparison with those that we held a quarter of a century, but the sudden burst of matches and the ramifications of those matches can be a jolt to the system. It’s a small wonder that there hasn’t yet been a psychological disorder of some description identified for those traumatised by the cognitive dissonance caused by the absolute belief that finishing in sixth place in the table on goal difference would guarantee promotion being met by the harsh reality of a home and away defeat in the semi-finals of the play-offs leading to the evaporation of all those dreams within three hours of football. Hope springs eternal, but that doesn’t always mean that it’s good for the mental health.
Many of us have our horror stories, of course, tales of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, or terrible refereeing decisions, tactical blunders, individual lapses in judgement and opportunities spurned. The play-offs hit that raw nerve in most supporters who, for better or for worse, come across them. They offer the possibility of glory through a fog of potential – if not likely – disappointment, a final roll of the dice before a summer of enforced abstinence. They allow us to believe for a little longer, even if that period of time is never as long as we would like it to be. We know that they can hurt. We know that they can be painful. We even know, though we may not wish to admit this to anybody, not even ourselves, that, statistically speaking, the odds are against us. But hey, these moments of cold sweat drenched terror are no small part of the reason why we get involved with all of this in the first place, and no matter what happens over the next four or five weeks or so, it all starts again in August.
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